Slang, dialect or language

 Scots words which are NOT slang
  • aff
  • arenae
  • auld
  • broon
  • cannae
  • clype
  • couldnae
  • dae
  • didnae
  • dinnae
  • doon
  • gie
  • greet
  • hame
  • heid
  • hoose
  • isnae
  • mair
  • mingin
  • oot
  • shoogle
  • skoosh
  • stotter
  • thae
  • watter
  • wean
  • wheesht
  • whit
  • widnae
  • wisnae

Listen to these words

Scots words, not slang (358 KB)

read by Abbie Reid and Callum Forrest from Carstairs Primary School.

When exactly the Scots language was first referred to as slang is difficult to determine. Although it may have happened fairly recently, referring to Scots as slang has now become so widespread visitors to Scotland might be forgiven for thinking that this country has three native languages: English, Gaelic and ‘slang’.

Scots is definitely not slang and calling it slang demeans those who speak this unique Scottish language. It also has a direct negative impact on the language confidence of Scots speakers and especially on children who grow up speaking it.

What is English slang?

Slang is an informal and often colourful way of speaking. People may use a slang word because it’s short and easy to say. Or they might belong to a certain social group and not want other folk to understand what’s being said. Slang words and expressions, which never remain fixed or static for long, give speakers an alternative to standard forms of language.

The word slang originates from the French term ‘sale langue’ and means ‘dirty language’. By dismissing Scots as mere slang, we show little respect for the mother tongue of a large number of Scottish people. In addition we are failing to value the language skills of those many thousands of children who bring Scots to school.

Language or dialect?

Is Scots a language? Or is it a dialect of English? This debate has been rumbling on for quite some time and can get some folk really hot under the collar.

There is no hard and fast rule about what makes one person’s speech a language and another’s a dialect. One school of thought suggests that all forms of speech are dialects, including the Received Pronunciation English we hear on BBC news.

Another theory is that a language is just a dialect with an army and a navy. Prestige seems to determine the status of a language but in the case of Scotland it may have a lot more to do with people seeing Scots as a language rather than a dialect. But Scots is a language and the right to call it a language rests on its place in Scottish history and its long literary pedigree.


Scots has a strong literary tradition which stretches from the early Middle Ages to the present day. Writers of Scots include William Dunbar, Robert Henryson, Sir David Lindsay, Robert Fergusson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Hugh MacDiarmid, Violet Jacob, Edwin Morgan, Liz Lochhead and Anne Donovan. And through the poetry of Robert Burns, Scots literature is read all over the world.

Sister languages

Scots can be understood by English speakers because Scots and modern English share the same Old English ancestor. They developed separately but are sister languages in the same way as Danish and Norwegian, Spanish and Portuguese and Czech and Slovak. They are more or less mutually intelligible but still unquestionably languages in their own right.

'It's as absurd to call Scots a dialect of English as it is to call English a dialect of Scots.'

Norman McCaig, poet (1910-96)